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Forum and wire reports, Published October 10 2013

Latest fed shutdown casualty: Prime hunting land in ND, Minn., SD

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – When pheasant hunters take to the fields of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota this weekend to renew a treasured rite of autumn, they’ll have less land to do it on thanks to the federal government shutdown.

Some 150,000 acres in the national wildlife refuge system will be off-limits for the state’s annual public lands hunt. It’s a scenario being played out across the country, affecting millions of acres that are ordinarily available to hunters seeking antelope in Colorado, ducks in Montana or bears in Alaska.

In Minnesota, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed 13 national wildlife refuges and eight wetland management districts totaling more than 489,000 acres of land.

State and other non-federal public lands normally open to pheasant hunting remain open.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department Director Terry Steinwand sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe asking him to “immediately reverse or rescind any actions closing the areas,” including Waterfowl Production Areas, that were open to hunting and fishing before the shutdown.

“As you know, North Dakota’s hunting seasons are in full swing and the impact to hunters and anglers that have an expectation to utilize those lands is high,” he wrote. “By this action, you’ve closed down access to more than 288,000 acres of public land in North Dakota, most of which was purchased through duck stamp and other dollars provided by hunters themselves.”

Steinwand called the closure of WPAs and other lands in the National Refuge System in North Dakota “unnecessary and unwarranted,” noting the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t normally maintain full-time staff at those areas and they’re generally posted open to public hunting.

The areas are home to migrant waterfowl, upland game and big game species managed by the state, the letter states.

“While the U.S. government is currently shut down, the State of North Dakota is not,” he wrote. “The federal shutdown does not create any additional public safety or management issues within the boundaries of North Dakota. … Your action to close the traditionally open areas within our state provides no real additional public safeguards or benefit to the public and thus far you have pointed out no operational costs to be saved as a result of the closure.”

Steinwand wrote that leaving public access to WPAs will cost nothing, but closing those lands marked with signs declaring them open to public hunting will “require action and expense, and results in unnecessary hardship, inconvenience and confusion for the public.”

In South Dakota, millions of acres leased or owned by the state will still be available. But the national wildlife refuge system sites offer some of the best cover for upland birds, said Mark Norton, hunting access coordinator for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

“In the grand scheme of things, it won’t be a huge amount,” Norton said. “But a lot of the waterfowl production areas are in the prime pheasant land of South Dakota. It will be felt by sportsmen, that’s for sure.”

Big business

Wildlife-related recreation is a big business in the U.S., with more than

90 million Americans spending more than $144 billion in 2011, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than a half-million residents and visitors hunt in Minnesota each year, contributing an estimated $725 million to the state’s economy, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Statewide, more than 80,000 hunters are expected to go after pheasants this year.

Steve Williams, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said public lands available for hunting already are too crowded, and the federal acres closure will further deter hunters from trying to find their spots.

Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, said most hunters want to hunt legally, and the confusion over what’s open and what’s closed will likely prompt some people to just stay home.

“I’m sure there’ll be some number that will say, ‘I don’t know where to go, where I’m allowed to go and therefore I’m not going to take a chance,’” said Williams. “And perhaps they won’t go at all.”